Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Five models for libraries outside libraries

In light of a plan to create a “portable,” “branch-a-day library” in Portland, Maine–LibraryThing’s home–I’ve been thinking about the various possible sorts of “libraries outside of libraries.”

I am of two minds about such projects. I like to see interesting experiments, but dislike replacing valuable services. It doesn’t help that one of the two branches Portland is closing is in my neighborhood. As a branch, it wasn’t the best, but it would take quite a “portable library” to make up for it even so.

Nevertheless, I came up with a list of five types libraries outside of libraries (exluding what might be done with ebooks). Are there any I’m missing?

1. The Bookmobile.

2. The Short-Lived Library. Set up a branch library that lives for a defined period of time, like Boston’s Storefront Library. It’s like an “event store,” but a library. The Storefront Library was a big community success.

3. “Branch-for-a-day.” Find a bunch of spaces–empty storefronts, community center rooms or whatever–and roll full book carts into them on a schedule–Monday this neighborhood, Tuesday that neighborhood, etc. Has this ever been tried?

4. The Cafe Shelf. Set up mini-branches consisting of shelves–general or themed–in public commercial spaces, like coffee shops. The books would be owned but probably non-collection items. Care would be taken to tie all the books back to the main collection, with paper inserts or whatever.

5. The Vending-Machine Library. Like Conta Costa’s Library-a-Go-Go, a cross between Redbox and your library. It’s like a library, but with no pesky salaries and a terrible selection.

Thoughts?

Labels: Uncategorized

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

LTFL written up in UK publication

The UK publication “Library and Information Gazette” just ran a great article in their April 22nd issue about LTFL. Written by one of our friends at Bowker, it covers LibraryThing for Libraries in general, as well as our new products, Shelf Browse and Library Anywhere (a mobile catalog for any library).

Shelf Browse, as well as other LTFL enhancements like tags, reviews, recommendations, is available now. We’re currently beta testing Library Anywhere with over 100 libraries, and it should be available to buy for your library this summer.

You can read the article online here (on page 4). Or read a PDF of it here.

Labels: librarything for libraries, ltfl

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The Brigadoon Library!

Techcrunch just reported an interesting development with Barnes and Noble’s Nook eReader, a feature called “Read in Store.”

The idea is simple. If you’ve got a Nook and you’re in a physical Barnes and Noble store, you can read any ebook they carry. When you leave the store, the book goes away. As TechCrunch writes, “It’s the Brigadoon of ebook reading.” (allusion explanation)

There are limitations, of course. Just as the Nook’s “lending” feature only works once per book, and then never again, Read in Store is only good for an hour of book reading per day, plus another 20 minutes for magazine and newspaper content.

Retail sense. It certainly makes retail sense. There was always something risky about the Nook. Was Barnes and Noble preparing for a future without stores or just speeding its own demise? Many ereader owners give up on physical bookstores.(1) Read in Store is designed to keep them there. As the press release puts it, “Our digital customers will feel at home in our stores” where they can read books on their Nook while “enjoying their favorite beverage in our café.”(2)

Best of all, this is territory Amazon and Apple can’t follow. Amazon has no stores, and will never add them. (As Indie Booksellers never tire of pointing out, Amazon’s success depends in part upon avoiding sales tax, which requires having no physical presence in a state.) Amazon has stores, but they’re not exactly set up for reading.

If I were Apple, I’d be talking to Borders right now. If I were Apple, there was no disease, and animals didn’t eat each other, I’d be talking to independent booksellers. Maybe it’s time indies got together, presumably through IndieBound, and tried to wring a similar deal with someone–Kobo, Sony, or the congruently social Copia.

An answer for libraries? What works for Barnes and Noble could also work for libraries. Indeed, since every Barnes and Noble has suddenly turned into a limitless library, real libraries risk losing a core value to a mere bookstore.

Fortunately, the change to a “Brigadoon Library” would be gentle. Libraries are already accustomed to in-library database access. This would be an extension of an established concept–very helpful in selling new ideas to institutions that are too often hostile to them. And it should be easy to set up–just submit your wifi’s IP address to an ereader’s website and you’re good to go.

Best of all, this is a library solution that makes sense to publishers and could therefore actually happen.(4) Publishers signed on with Barnes and Noble because they calculated that the sales they lost from free reading would be more than offset by the sales they gained from people who bought the book after tiring of the physical limitation–and by the extra word of mouth.(5) With libraries, the publisher incentive is less, but still significant. Readers cannot turn from an ereader to buy a physical copy, as they could at a Barnes and Noble store. But, as at a store, they can buy the ebook. There’s no reason publishers wouldn’t provide such a service for free, or, more probably, a low cost.(6)

What about outside the library? Will many in libraryland object to “read in the library for free but pay to take it home”? Certainly. But here’s where ebook rental comes in. The library will pay to have some books available for take-home rental.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, ebook rental is a serious down-elevator for libraries. Through the magic of the First Sale doctrine, libraries could extract a lot more value from paper books than “regular” buyers–something like nine times as much. This surplus value was to a large degree why libraries came about, and why they continue to make economic sense. But now that publishers aren’t bound by First Sale, they have no incentive whatsoever to allow libraries similarly generous terms. Libraries will have to pay full price for the value they deliver. Once that happens libraries will have little advantage over renting the book yourself.(7) Libraries become a “simple” book subsidy, not a magical one.

I don’t see this regime ending. Publishers will never allow libraries to circulate digital books under the older, physical terms. They will charge for it, and charge what it’s worth.(8) But in-library reading can augment necessarily restricted and circumscribed ebook lending. Thus, the library itself–the physical library–can serve as a limitless portal to the world. And, in addition, the library can allow paper books, and some digital books to be taken out.

Library dystopia. The Brigadoon Library holds out some hope that libraries can avoid “library dystopia”–a world in which the loss of First-Sale value and the virtualization of everything undermines public support for the library, and for the other enduring values libraries deliver. It’s a world without libraries, or a world with libraries that provide much less.

For me, these enduring values include helping patrons find and understand information, and providing a vibrant community space. Many would also include the provision of free computers, but I see this as a downward race against technology prices–a service that will disappear as the need disappears, much like the telephone service libraries in rural areas once provided.(9)

Instead of a library depleted of books–not to mention CDs and DVDs(10)–and of library patrons not there for babysitting or free computers, the Brigadoon Library would be a full library. It would be full of patrons browsing the entire world of books.

Library utopia? This isn’t library utopia. The Brigadoon Library would be a sort of updated closed-stacks library, and closed stacks library are limited libraries. It isn’t the universal library, the expected future library where everything is available everywhere–and for free.

I didn’t get a shot of the reading room, but here’s my son, with the lions. No libraries, no lions. For God’s sake, think of the children!

But it’s a healthy one. It’s healthy for authors and publishers. It’s healthy for library budgets. And it’s healthy for patrons.

I got a sense of how healthy a closed-stacks library can be a recent trip to the Boston Public Library’s Research Library–the beautiful old building next to the ugly modern one. The reading room was full of people studying and browsing the web, but a core group was there because the “Research Collections” at the Boston Public Library are only available for use in-library. Kept from going elsewhere, they were truly limited.

But the limits had their benefits. Researchers and non-researchers enjoyed the air conditioning, the gorgeous room, and the company of others. The building and the people added something. And that’s not even mentioning all the restaurants and bookstores nearby, or the library-sponsored readings and music events. The “anywhere library” of solitary individuals in their underwear is not really a better library.

I’ll stop there. My blog posts all way to be essays, and my readers prefer they were Twitter posts.

To recap the Brigadoon Library is:

  • Technically easy, so doable.
  • Good for publishers, so possible.
  • Great for patrons, who get access to a world of books.
  • Not expensive.
  • Likely to produce full, vibrant physical spaces.
  • Likely to foster the connection between taxpayer and library.
  • Might save libraries.
  • Named after a Broadway Musical.

Come talk about it in the comments, or on Talk here.


1. Those that don’t often use them very cynically–soaking up the nice displays and friendly smiles of the booksellers without the least intention to buy. There is, I think, a special circle of hell for people who do this, alongside the people who browse stores in order to figure out what they’re going to buy on Amazon.

2. Does any human being not standing in front of a table with a pad of paper uses the word “beverage”?

3. In some cases, libraries would probably have to pay outright for a read-in-library feature. Few patrons are going to buy an encyclopedia, for example. But the payment would be minimized by the limitation.

4. Here and elsewhere I’m going to use “publisher” to mean whoever sells the book. “Publisher” may eventually mean author directly, or some intermediary with no editorial or curatorial role. I despise phrases like “content provider.”

5. This ignores the likelihood that publishers were also influenced by Barnes and Noble’s outside share of their own book sales.

6. In some cases, libraries would probably have to pay outright for a read-in-library feature. Few patrons are going to buy an encyclopedia, for example. But the payment would be minimized if the item could only be read while in the library.

7. The exception is market power and price discrimination. Libraries buy a lot of books, so they may be able to command moderate discounts. As for price discrimination, it only applies if you need to go to the library to get the book. Price discrimination works by targeting some type of consumer or by imposing some barrier that does the same; for example, paperbacks are price discrimination, big fans and people with money buy the hardback; lesser fans and the cost-conscious wait to buy the paperback.

8. The only real hope is legislation. If Congress passed a bill that forced publishers to sell to libraries at a certain cost, with certain rights, that would change everything. I don’t see that happening, and if it did, the costs and rights would be closer to real value extracted than to the First Sale price.

9. That doesn’t mean libraries will stop providing computers, just as many will still let you make a phone call. Computers may well be necessary for this or that library-related task. And since libraries will probably continue to be used for low-quality babysitting, computers will keep the children entertained. But the provision of free computers and internet cannot remain a core mission of libraries when the “free” part has become superfluous.

10. CDs and DVDs are going virtual much faster than books. And for all the interest in libraries providing ebook rental nobody is talking about libraries providing free music of video streaming. That will never happen.

Nook photo credit goes to jennifertomaloff on Flickr.

Labels: brigadoon library, ebooks, ereaders, future of the book, kindle, nook

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Computers in Libraries 2010

Tim and I are in DC (ok, Arlington, VA) for the Computers in Libraries conference. We’re booth 217 in the exhibit hall, so come by and visit us. (We’re the ones with the rhinos, as always!)

We’re here to show off LibraryThing for Libraries (enhance your OPAC with tags, reviews, shelf browse, recommendations, and more) and our new product, Library Anywhere.

Library Anywhere is a mobile catalog for everyone—it gives you a web version of your OPAC optimized for cell phones, as well as native applications for iPhone, Android and Blackberry. It requires no installation, and is cheap (see the public price list here).

We’re extremely proud and excited about Library Anywhere. We released our beta version to over 100 libraries last week, and response has been great. We’re busy tweaking and building. Stop by the booth and we’ll show you it live.

Labels: CIL2010, Computers in Libraries, library anywhere

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Reading alone: How ebooks will kill the smallest libraries

A shelf at a church library catalogued by LibraryThing members. (See other flash-mob cataloging events.)

I’ve argued before (1, 2) that ebooks will hurt or even kill traditional libraries. I’d like to present the even stronger case that ebooks will kill off the small “community” libraries all around us–the shelves and rooms at churches, health centers and many other similar places.

These little, informal lending libraries grow like weeds all around us and contribute to the fabric of social life and community identity. It will be a shame to lose them, but it is probably inevitable.

Ebooks hurt traditional libraries. In brief, the argument is that paper-book libraries made economic sense because libraries owned books like anyone else, but could efficiently organize them to be lent out many times.

This “First Sale Doctrine” falls before the licensed-usage model of contemporary ebooks. It’s not in publishers’ or writers’ interests to allow libraries to buy an item once at a consumer or near-consumer price and lend it out to many people, even serially, forever. Libraries will be forced to pay something closer to the true value of their lending activity, which will cost much more. It will convert libraries from an almost magical value multiplier, into a “simple” book subsidy.

Why are they dead? Ebooks kill small community libraries for the same basic reason—ebooks are and will remain a licensed good, not a freely owned one. The smallest libraries rely on the rights implicit in physical ownership. eBooks change—take back—many of those rights.

This boils down a little differently:
  • Small libraries depend to a large degree on cast-offs and donations. But consumers can’t give their ebooks to anyone when they’re done with them. They’re technically and/or legally locked to a device or personal account.
  • Small collections grow organically and lazily without a “librarian.” It’s unlikely they will be able to negotiate and organize whatever “institutional subscriptions” will be available for public libraries.
  • If community libraries often can’t pay for new paper books, it’s unlikely they will have the funds to engage in high-priced site- or multi-use licensing of books.
  • Public libraries have market power. Even if they can’t preserve first-sale value, they can use their collective and even individual scale to negotiate deals. Small community libraries are too fragmented and casual for market power.
  • Public libraries are connected to real moral and political power, and it pays dividends. For example, although public libraries weren’t even involved in the infamous Google deal, the parties thought it politic to grant public libraries free access to copyrighted books at one terminal per building. This power may come in handy if publishers put the squeeze on them, but the smallest community have neither market or political power.

Counter-arguments. The argument could be made that ebooks will eventually revert to a more traditional “ownership” model. But why? Consumers have already made it clear that they will trade convenience and price to give up traditional rights of resale, lending, donation and inheritance. There has been no large-scale clamor for such rights, and I don’t see one emerging. Rather, as ebooks advance, the personal, non-transferable nature of the medium will become increasingly accepted.

It has also been suggested that, although ebook DRM and contracts will stiffle lending, rampant piracy can function as a sort of rough substitute. If ebook piracy reaches music-piracy levels, this may come about–together with a sharp decline in quality writing which, unlike music, can’t fall back on concert tickets and t-shirts to make ends meet. But either way, small communities will not be involved. Private citizens may trade ebooks, but a church or a senior center will not put its legal neck on the line to engage in a secondary activity like book lending.

What will we lose? At lot more than you might think, particularly if you’re healthy, young and not much of a joiner. But here’s a partial inventory of some the small lending libraries within a mile of two of my home:

  • A dozen churches, some with significant libraries
  • Two synagogues
  • A muslim community center
  • A natural birthing and parenting center
  • An Irish heritage center
  • A handful of exclusive private clubs
  • A Masonic temple
  • An arts and theatre center
  • A welter of general health centers
  • A cancer center
  • A center for grieving children
  • A hospice
  • A homeless shelter
  • A left-wing political action center
  • An advocacy group for Maine children
  • A center for transgender youth
  • A fiber-arts group
  • An Audubon Society
  • The YMCA
  • Semi-ornamental collections in a legion of coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, bars and so forth
  • Two “Bookcrossing zones,” where strangers leave and grab used books
  • A tiny, poor, seldom-open private library that’s been around since 1815 but mostly stocks recent bestsellers

Gloom and Doom? There is another side, of course. We shouldn’t forget that ebooks may well turn out to be an overall boon. Convenience, universal selection and writer-reader disintermediation are powerful, largely positive forces.

It may also turn out that, all things being equal, the “ownership premium”—the extra that books cost because they could be transferred to others—was an unnecessary drag on our lives. If we aren’t paying for true ownership, we can perhaps rent—and read—more. Maybe with books, as with tuxedos, most people are better off renting.(1) Or, to take another example, where we once dug wells, and “owned our own water supply,” we eventually found it was more efficient to socialize the cost of the infrastructure, and pay for usage.

I even expect we don’t even know all the good things ebooks will bring about. I’m not even being sarcastic.

But if something is gained, something will definitely be lost. The list of ebook “externalities” is long: the death of physical bookstores, the wounding or death of traditional public libraries, the concentration of retail power in a few hands, surrendering your reading history to corporations, privacy and censorship issues in undemocratic states, leaving your books to your kids, lending books to friends, showing off, subway voyeurism, etc.

So, to that list, add the death of the smallest libraries.


1. I own my own tuxedo, however, and I wear it whenever I can, dammit.

Labels: ebooks, future of the book, small libraries

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Library Anywhere at PLA

PLA is happening right now in Portland, OR. We don’t have our own booth, but Casey is hanging out at the ProQuest booth (booth 2032), along with the Bowker folks. Stop by to talk about LibraryThing for Libraries, and to see live demos of Library Anywhere—a mobile catalog for any library!

(click to see larger images)

The exhibits are open until 5pm today, and from 9:30-4 tomorrow.

Labels: library anywhere, PLA

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Library Anywhere write-up on ALA TechSource blog

Library Anywhere, our upcoming product that provides a mobile catalog (both mobile web and native apps) for any library, just got an excellent write-up on the ALA TechSource blog: LibraryThing Delivers Mobile Access to Library Catalogs.

The article, by Marshall Breeding, will also appear in the March 2010 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter.

Breeding says of Library Anywhere,

“With the high level of functionality and the low pricing, this competition will lower the threshold for mobile technology into the reach of almost any library.”

We’re certainly excited about Library Anywhere, and are busy at work on it. We’ll have more to show off soon!

Labels: library anywhere, librarything for libraries, mobile, mobile catalog

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

March Legacy Mob: U.S.S. California

After the success of cataloging the 1963 White House Library, we’ve made it into a monthly thing.

This month, starting at 12:00 noon EST Wednesday, March 3, and continuing for 24 hours, we’re going to be cataloging the on-board library of the U.S.S. California, as it was in 1905.

This California‘s library catalog were written up and published by the Government Printing Office, and has been scanned by the Internet Archive. Designed to serve the California‘s 830-odd officers and men—the libraries were separate—it offers a unique view of the navy of the time, and of the country. The ship, then rechristened the San Diego, and its library, went to the bottom of the ocean in 1918, the victim of a German U-boat. Six sailors died.

The “Legacy Mob” is an amalgam of two LibraryThing inventions:

Labels: flash-mob cataloging, legacy libraries, legacy mob

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

CoverGuess: The game that helps people find books…

See the main blog. (Posted to the wrong blog and too many links to this to just delete it.)

Labels: book covers, new feature

Monday, March 1st, 2010

400,000 LTFL Reviews

We now have over 400,000 reviews vetted and available for LibraryThing for Libraries. (Last June we hit 300,000, so over 100,000 reviews have been added in the past 8 months—not bad.)

400,000 is a lot of reviews. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, for example, has 117 reviews. Now you probably don’t need to read over 100 reviews. But if a popular book gets that many, then the more obscure books in your catalog could have 20, 10, or 5 reviews. LTFL reviews cover the bestsellers but they also reach down the long tail.

The LTFL Reviews Enhancement also comes with blog widgets and a Facebook application allow your patrons to show off their reviews—and their love for your library—where they “live” online.

The Reviews Enhancement is currently available for Horizon, iBistro, Webvoyage, Voyager 7, Koha, Evergreen, WebPac, WebPac Pro, and Polaris 3.6. We’re always expanding this list, so if your OPAC isn’t one of these, email abby@librarything.com and we can work on adding support for it.

For more information, email me (abby@librarything.com). For ordering information, contact Peder Christensen at Bowker—877-340-2400 or Peder.Christensen@bowker.com.

Labels: librarything for libraries, ltfl, LTFL Reviews